“Where I grew up, the only time you heard the word art was when you were talking about someone named Arthur,” Charley Harper told designer, Todd Oldham, in the short documentary, At Home with Charley Harper.
Charley Harper, a beloved mid-century modernist artist, was born and raised in Frenchton, West Virginia. Yes, West Virginia. Frenchton is south of Buckhannon in Upshur County, three miles west of the West Virginia Wildlife Center in French Creek.
While his family’s farm may not have been a hotbed of artistic activity in the 1920s, it was the place where Harper first discovered water striders, and those little insects inspired not only one of his favorite paintings – Jesus Bugs – but a lifelong love of nature.
After attending college at West Virginia Wesleyan, Harper headed to the Art Academy of Cincinnati, Ohio, and it was in our neighboring state that Harper developed his signature style and lived out his quietly remarkable life.
Charley Harper: More than Just a Painting Primate
Harper called his artistic style minimal realism. Others called it stylized geometric reduction.
In his work, Harper reduced his subjects to simple but bold shapes and colors, capturing the essence of their design. He placed the subjects in complex but perfectly balanced ecosystems showing off clever perspectives and giving them often down-right hilarious titles. Here are a few of our favorites.
- A raccoon digging through the garage for food: “Big Rac Attack.”
- Bugs, butterflies and birds stuck in a spider’s web: “Welcome to My Website.”
- A porcupine eating a cactus. “Prickly Pair.”
In addition to being a talented artist and a funny wordsmith, Harper was a great student of nature. The research he conducted on his subjects resulted in much more than just a perfectly stylized geometric reduction. Many of Harper’s originals were accompanied by thoughtful descriptions about the meaning of the natural elements in our lives.
Harper had this to say about one of his most popular paintings of birds entitled, “Mystery of the Missing Migrants.”
“For centuries, the neo-tropical migrants have shuttled between winter homes in the tropical rainforest and nesting sites in our woodlands. Now their populations are plummeting. Why? Habitat destruction down there? Up here? Is your favorite songster in this flock? Each April, I listen anxiously to the dawn chorus for the return of my favorite, that world-class flutist, the wood thrush. Are silent springs forthcoming? Remember the canary in the coal mine?”
Celebrating West Virginia’s Native Son
August 4, 2022 marks the centennial of Charles Burton Harper’s birth, which we believe is worth celebrating. Let’s make August 4 a day of art appreciation in West Virginia. We’ve got a few ideas on how to do it.
- The larger collecting institutions like The Clay Center, Huntington Museum of Art and the WVU Art Museum could purchase Harper originals for West Virginians to enjoy now and in the future. The smaller institutions and galleries could curate shows around Harper’s style or themes. The Huntington Museum of Art was off to a great start with their recent show, Macy’s Presents Charley Harper: Works from the Hausrath Family Collection and the corresponding fundraiser, “It’s a Mod, Mod World.”
- Many art, science and community organizations could plan creative programing for children of all ages using Harper’s love of nature to ignite curiosity and creativity.
- From the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s, Harper did a series of captivating posters commissioned by the National Park Service. In 2016, Travel with Charley Harper, the National Park Service Traveling Art Exhibit came as close to West Virginia as The Mound City Group Visitors Center in Chillicothe, OH. Let’s see if the New River Gorge National River can get the show up at Canyon Rim Visitor’s Center.
- Colorful painted or mosaic murals in Harper’s style could be commissioned or volunteered on Main Streets throughout West Virginia.
- A creative quilter’s club could replicate The River City Quilt Guild’s show, where over 70 quilts were created to represent a variety of Harper’s work in fiber-art form. The West Virginia Division of Culture and History could also encourage Harper patterns in the annual quilt exhibition at the Culture Center.
- Sculptural tributes to Harper could be commissioned by cities and art organizations for public display. Imagine a kinetic cardinal peeking at the ground, geometric otters bathing in a fountain or a metal raccoon safely installed in a prominent city tree.
- The Charleston Gazette-Mail or West Virginia Living could print Harper style coloring patterns for children and adults to use as mindful meditation while reading articles about the impact of Harper’s work around the world.
- Libraries and book stores could stock and promote the many books about Charley Harper and his work.
- Science teachers might explore the physical characteristic of animals that allow for easy recognition through geometric reduction. English teachers could use Harper’s clever titles and descriptions as inspiration for creative writing assignments, and of course, art teachers could have a field day!
- The folks at the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources could incorporate Harper’s work at WV Wildlife Center which opened near Harper’s birthplace in 1923, the year after he was born.
Mid-Century Modernist in the Coolest Small Town
Charley Harper passed in 2007, but if he were still living, Shawn and I would invite him to come and stay at Lafayette Flats while he explored the flora and fauna of the New River Gorge.
We’d gussy up Flat No. 2, Corten because it’s the flat with the most nods to his style including a numbered print of Welcome to My Website, vibrant wall decals based on his Mystery of the Missing Migrants and the book Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life by Todd Oldham.
We’d take him on the Endless Wall Trail to look for woodland critters, and to listen for bird calls. We’d ask him to ponder what his poster would have looked like if the National Park Service had asked him to illustrate the New River Gorge.
And maybe, if we were very lucky, we would find a bunch of water striders on Fern Creek.
We’ve curated a few additional Charley Harper inspired goodies for Lafayette Flats and we’re making them available to you in our shop. Order something special today and start thinking about how you can celebrate this exceptional West Virginian every day and especially on August 4, 2022.
Please leave a comment or reach out to us through our website to discuss possible collaborations for celebrating Charley Harper in 2022. We love promoting West Virginia artists, especially this one.
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